The death of Steve Jobs led to a tidal wave of sympathetic news coverage. Jobs the entrepreneur. Jobs the visionary. Jobs the entertainer. Jobs the philanthropist. Jobs the college dropout who showed those pointy heads that college isn’t needed (while creating thousands of jobs for the college educated and virtually none for anyone else). Jobs the obsessed perfectionist.
Not much of it made sense to me, except from the standpoint of mainstream propaganda about the business person as heroic maker of history. Then again, I had recently spent two hours trying to convince my 22-year-old engineering graduate school son that Jobs was less important to world civilization than Gustave Flaubert, the great French novelist who is routinely credited with a large number of innovations in prose writing that we now take for granted.
Sue me if I’m not impressed with the portability of the iPod or iPhone, but am negatively influenced by the tinny sound and small screen. And sue me again if I never saw any advantage in an Apple computer over a standard issue PC. And sue me a third time if I’m not enraptured by animation—I am after all, an adult.
I kept my silence about Jobs, though, as it seemed to me that it would be sour and small-minded to complain about the outsized coverage of Jobs’ death, which continues unabated three weeks later.
That is until learning in The Economist that Steve Jobs was the largest single shareholder in Disney.
Disney represents a number of pernicious trends and ideological imperatives in American culture. Let’s see how many of them would apply to Apples, iPods, iPhones, iPads and/or Pixar films:
- The infantilization of adults, which means that adults continue pursuing the immature entertainments of their youth such as Disney theme parks for adults, slapstick buddy movies and video games, instead of growing into more adult preoccupations. Pixar fits right into that trend. So do iPods and iPhones, because they give you music and information right here right now, just like a child likes it to be delivered.
- The idea of putting a brand on everything, which replaces real sentiment with a commodity to which artificial (or manufactured) sentiment has been attached through applying a label. Movies become books, comic books, mugs, posters, lunchboxes, pens, tee-shirts, key chains, glasses, dolls of various sizes and materials, jigsaw and crossword puzzles, board games, television shows, theme park rides, theme park characters, and, finally, sequels. Again, the Pixar connection is obvious.
- The homogenization of culture, which means that instead of a mosaic of subcultures each of which offers authentic experiences drawing on centuries-old traditions, there is one homogenized culture everywhere. In a sense, the dominant culture extinguishes the smaller cultures, much as dominant species can wipe out the weaker species in an ecosystem and thus spawn long-term ecological disaster. Disney represents cultural homogenization more than any other company or brand. Whatever the big city, you can find a Disney Store somewhere, with a Hard Rock Café, a P F. Chang, a few Starbucks, McDonald’s, Olive Garden and a Subway or two close by. And an Apple store, too, now that you mention it. Part of homogenization is to make everything taste or feel the same. For example, the bagel chains have increased the size and sugar content of a bagel so much that the standard bagel is no longer a bagel, but a sweet roll in a different shape. Or think of how many of today’s movies reduce to the same video-game-like explosions, crashes and chases. If you want to see homogenization at its best, go to a Mexican or Italian theme restaurant at a Disney theme park. You’ll get the colors and the names, but not the food. Jobs’ products (excepting the movies) fought homogenization by lowering the cost of setting up a special interest network, e.g., for an ethnic or political group or for people who like model trains. But Jobs’ technology also made it easier for the technical integration that helps large media conglomerates control all their hundreds of media outlets and thereby homogenize the news and information we receive.
- The Victorian Disney morality, which I will exemplify with two recurring Disney themes:
- The Disney Princess, which trains little girls to be pedestal-dwelling clothes-and-jewelry consumers who find value in being “treated like a princess.” As Betty Friedan described it more than 50 years ago, being treated like a “princess” leads to the malaise of the imprisoned. The princess on the pedestal is both worshipped and enslaved.
- The Disney belief that the best lifestyle is to be found in a homogenous small town based on everyone owning a car. Even in the age of Disney cartoon heroes of color, this small town vision dominates Disney theme parks, Disney literature and Disney movies.
From what’s coming out in obituaries and rushed biographies, Steve Jobs clearly did not subscribe to the Disney moral vision, and that’s to his credit.
But regarding the basic business ideology, Jobs and Disney were very much on the same page. The commodification of emotional value through branding, the infantilization of adults and homogenization away from authenticity towards some lowest common denominator—these methods of Disney were not alien to Steve Jobs the business person.